The Breaking News of Jesus' Baptism

Sermons Proclaim
Homily: Jesus' Baptism
January 10, 2021
Reproduced with Permission
Sermons Proclaim

Summary: Jesus didn't explain why he felt he needed John to baptize him, but the act revealed who Jesus was and what his mission would be. Although Christians have shed blood over how to do and understand baptism, the important thing to remember is that baptism marks our individual entry into the communal mission of the church to spread Christ's good news.

We all know that we cannot live without water. In fact, water is so essential for life that it makes up some 60 percent of the human body itself.1

But water is also a powerful symbol, and that symbolic role starts with the first creation story in the book of Genesis. The New Revised Standard Version of Genesis 1:2 says that when God started creating things, "the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep." The Hebrew word translated as "deep" is " tehom ," and it means a primordial sea.

In Robert Alter's recently published translation of the Hebrew Bible,2 he renders "formless void and darkness" as "welter and waste" and says that there was "darkness over the deep."

"Welter and waste" comes closer to the original Hebrew words, " tohu wabohu ," which may sound to the untrained ear like a term children might make up in a rhyming game.

But from the beginning of the Bible, we get a sense of water's potential power, a power we see later furiously displayed in the Noah flood story in which God destroys most of humanity because, the story says, God regretted having created such sinful people. Another pivotal biblical water story involves the escape of the people of Israel from Egypt as the Red, or Reed, Sea parts to let them cross.

So it should be no surprise that water symbolism plays a part when Jesus, after some three decades of waiting to start his ministry, finally decides that now is the time. The water of the River Jordan became a sign that something new was happening, something astonishing - the beginning of the effort by the son of God to announce that God's kingdom was at hand and that people could live in that kingdom of justice, mercy, compassion and love today.

(By the way, you can go to a specially designated place on the River Jordan today in Israel and be baptized if you've not already been or you can simply re-enact your baptism. Just know that this site may or may not be close to where Jesus was baptized.)

Why was Jesus baptized?

As for Jesus' baptism, let's be clear that John did not baptize Jesus to turn him from a Jew to a Christian. Most of that religious division and struggle would come well after Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. Rather, John baptized Jesus at Jesus' own request as a way of marking Jesus' personal and public acceptance of his mission and as a way of identifying who he is and would be, not only to the people around him but also, in some interior way, to himself.

Sometimes we associate baptism with the idea of cleansing us from sin so we may enter into church membership in a state of purity, filled with the Holy Spirit. But because Christianity teaches that Jesus was the only sinless person ever to live, that cleansing idea seems out of place in the baptism story we just read.

It's interesting that in Matthew's version of the baptism story, John says he's not worthy to carry the sandals of the coming Messiah and then says directly to Jesus: "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" Jesus doesn't explain why he feels called to have John baptize him. He simply humbles himself and says, "Let it be so now."3

So if Jesus isn't interested in explaining why a sinless man needs baptism, perhaps we should also just let it be so for now and focus our attention elsewhere.

When we think about baptism today, we naturally associate it almost exclusively with Christianity. But baptism predates Christianity. Indeed, it's one of the many things that Christianity owes to Judaism and to other religious traditions before Christianity. References to some forms of baptism can be found in ancient Greek, Hittite and Egyptian temples, though then the act wasn't a sign of entering into a faith community but, rather, was a purification ritual.4 And even today you will find ritual washings in Judaism and in other traditions.

Why do we get baptized?

But that leads us to the question not only of what to make of Jesus' baptism, but what we are to make of our own. What difference has it made in our lives that we are baptized? And what difference do we make in the lives of others when we are baptized?

In many Christian branches, baptism includes a promise from the congregation to love and care for the ones being baptized. In other words, congregants are not just observers of an interesting water ritual but are participants in each other's lives. And that means that we are at least partly responsible for the baptized person. Or, as we sometimes put it, we are our brother's and sister's keepers.

Baptism is not unique in the way it draws people into the lives of others. In confirmation classes, for instance, the ones being confirmed become full members of a congregation and share with other members the responsibilities and privileges that go with that.

Similarly, marriage ceremonies are not just about the two people standing up front and saying "I do." They are, beyond that, about the faith community that approves of and conducts the marriage ceremony, bringing two people to the attention of that community so that its members can help to love the couple through the inevitable better and worse, the richer and poorer, the sickness and health.

In that same way, baptism reminds us that we are built for community, which is a primary reason that houses of worship all over the world quickly moved to online services in the 2020 coronavirus pandemic instead of shutting down entirely. We simply couldn't be done with each other, cut off from each other, out of each other's lives. We need each other.

And so it was with the baptism of Jesus. This was not a solo event designed to mark Jesus as somehow spiritually mature. Rather, it was a ritualistic start to Jesus' own desire to reach out to others and proclaim the arrival of the reign of God in a new way. You can even think of it as a first-century breaking-news bulletin to the world. It was news, good news, and it was meant for everyone.

Because we are fallible human beings, we have fought about how to understand and conduct baptisms over the centuries - at least in Protestant denominations. Some insist on full immersion. Some prefer a choice of dip 'em, drip 'em, dab 'em or dunk 'em. Some say the church should baptize babies. Some insist that no one should be baptized until reaching the age of understanding and consent. Indeed, across the centuries blood has been shed over baptism and how to do it.

No doubt God's head shakes at all this contention. But however we conceive the rules around baptism, what we need to remember is that it marks us as God's own and it deputizes us to do the work of Christ in the world.

Notice, however, that the gospel accounts say that immediately after his baptism Jesus was drawn into the wilderness for 40 days. He needed time to think about what his baptism meant for how he would live his life in light of it. Taking some reflection time after our own religious ceremonies certainly is a good idea, whether it's baptism, confirmation, marriage, the Eucharist or something else.

Right after we experience these sacred moments, let's not just rush off to lunch or another meeting. Let's give ourselves an opportunity to process what we've just been through. That probably doesn't require 40 days - although in some cases it may - but we will shortchange ourselves if we don't give our hearts and minds a little time to catch up with what our bodies have experienced.

We should allow our right brains to ponder what our left brains have been through, and vice versa. That's one way of understanding what Jesus was doing in those 40 days after his baptism. And when that reflection time was done, he moved right into calling his first disciples and getting on with the kind of ministry he no doubt thought about in the wilderness.

John's baptism of Jesus, complete with an affirmation from God's voice about Jesus' identity and about being pleased with him, was in some ways unexpected. And yet Jesus knew that John had prepared the way, had attracted the attention of people who longed for a close relationship with God. So his baptism was a sign to those spiritually hungry people of where to find food.

Today let's remember not only the baptism of Jesus, but also our own, which marked our entry into the Christian family, which seeks to follow Jesus - the vibrant, unchained, risen and living Christ. That's no easy task, but Christ promises to walk with us.